Lost in Translation

It was the vehemence of the assault that surprised me. The attacker: my son. His weapon: my birthday cake.

My birthday was last week. With Maria in our family now, I knew this year would be different than the usual last-minute birthday cards. Birthday celebrations in Guatemala have unique traditions, which I learned about one afternoon during a front yard soccer game a few days before my husband’s birthday.

Maria, who had joined our family two weeks earlier, called me over and whispered in Spanish, “I have an idea for Christopher’s birthday. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m….” Wow, I thought, is she going to prepare a feast for when he awakes two hours later? She’s amazing! “And I’ll wake up the boys at 4 a.m.,” she continued, “and we’ll come into your room at 4 a.m. and sing songs and pour ice water on him!” Her face was overtaken by a huge smile.

Which I had to snuff out, even if it was culturally insensitive. “No. No way. Do NOT do that. He will not like that.” She took the note, and instead made a huge, colorful birthday banner, taped to the dining room wall after he went to bed. Lovely. Two weeks later, we celebrated my older son’s birthday in a similar way. No middle of the night birthday anarchy. I had protected them from this particular cultural exchange.

Cue my birthday. I had seen hints that Maria and the boys were at work on an art project, heard giggling and whispers, and was happy the three of them were getting along so well. On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to the sounds of them scampering about. I felt content, not only because I knew there was something special planned for me, but because this experiment of welcoming a stranger into our family was succeeding beyond my wildest dreams. I had never expected my boys to come to love Maria, nor so quickly.

At 6:30 a.m. Maria and the boys entered our bedroom. Aaron held a beautiful cake that read “Happy Birthday Laura” in flowing red icing script, and candle flames lit the dark bedroom. Maria held an iPad playing “Happy Birthday” in mariachi style. Emmett held a camera, recording the moment. I felt loved and appreciated.

I made my wish, and then I blew out my candles. Before I could inhale my next breath, I was inhaling my cake and my son’s fist behind it. He pushed the entire quarter-sheet cake up onto my chest and chin. That was their plan. Ha ha ha. Feliz cumpleanos.

But my 14-year-old kept going. He grabbed the cake and shoved it at my head. Cake flew everywhere: on me, my pillow, the bed, the floor, the rug. When he finally stopped, the cake was destroyed. I was crestfallen. Either he had misunderstood Maria’s instructions and innocently taken it too far, or he had become overcome by aggression over every fight about too much screentime.

It felt like the latter — “Does he hate me that much?” I wondered. I tried not to cry. The kids sort of helped Christopher clean up. I got in the shower. Though I tried not to let it, it colored the rest of my day, a charcoal hue that came with me on a hike underneath otherwise blue skies. I tried to shake it off. By day’s end, we had moved on, and eaten the entire cake.

A few days have passed, and I’ve recovered from the hurt feelings. I still don’t know if the intensity of the cake attack was motivated by suppressed anger, or the thrill of permission to run amok. I look for a lesson regardless, something to salvage.

Perhaps it is this: I have entered the era of Mother to an Adolescent. There will be friction and misunderstandings, disagreements and disputes. But at the end of the day, we come together. We share the ample sweetness there is, in all its delicious imperfection.

birthday cake

Best Birthday Gifts for Mom

Does a mom experience any sweeter feeling than watching quietly from the staircase as her child, unknowing that he is being observed, makes French Toast for her birthday? Dad is out of town, and this is my boy’s own idea. “I thought of it last night before I went to bed. If you were still upstairs, I would have cut a flower from the garden for you.” He is his father’s son.

His brother comes downstairs sleepily, “You woke me up!” He is his mother’s son. He needs ample sleep and many reminders of things like other people’s birthdays. Consoled by news that his brother has made French toast, he lumbers to the table and puts his head down on his beloved Calvin and Hobbes anthology. His brother and I don’t mention the occasion for the French toast, giving him a chance to remember on his own. After a while I figure I won’t hide the ball, I’ll put it right in front of him, give him a break.

“Can I tell you something?” I ask. I lean in to his warm body wrapped in footed pajamas and reveal, “Today’s my birthday!” He consents to a hug, a smile, and a “Happy birthday.” That’s a whole lotta lovin’ from this one, in his current phase, and I know it. It’s a good reminder to accept my boys as the people they are, brilliantly unique.

The birthday morning brigade

 

It’s no lie that these small gifts from my two vastly different soul-boys fill me up. (The icing on my cake? No morning squabbles, no rushing out the door for school. Birthday miracles is the only rational explanation.)

Arriving at school, another hug is reluctantly offered by the tough guy: “But in the car, mom, where no one can see us.” I take what I can get. But when we are on the sidewalk, I do something dumb. I can’t help myself: I hug him again anyway. I know it’s not good for our relationship. I know I should respect his boundaries. Aachh…I’ll start tomorrow. “Hugging you is like eating a cupcake,” I say, trying to explain my weakness on his terms.

Cupcake and photo by Jessica Heisen

(Cupcake and photo by Jessica Heisen)

His countenance brightens. “Speaking of cupcakes…!?”

I smile and say, “We’ll see.” If I play my cards right, there may be another hug and kiss in this day yet.

That Championship Season

Some balls just get away. They fly over the center fielder’s head, past the white fence, or drop two feet to the left, lost in the sun. Some games get away like that, too.

Never mind that a little brother has dressed like an Oriole, an honorary mascot that the team has allowed in the dugout all season, today decked out in orange face paint, orange and black feathers, and a beak that was painted the perfect shade of orange.

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Everything thought of and arranged and planned for. Everything, that is, but the other team’s bat, their incessant homeruns and ground rule doubles, again and again, unanswered. Sigh.

No matter the few great plays and big hits our team had, no matter the spirit and high hopes they brought to the field; trepidation and fear walked into the dugout, too. Their opponents had come off a week of wins, fighting just to get into this game. Our kids had a week off, too much rest from battle. No taste of vanquished teams on their tongues.

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There will be one more chance. One final championship game.

The team told the little mascot not to dress that way next time: no makeup, no feathers, no beak. It’s simple baseball superstition; whatever was different about this loss is banished, along with it the taint of loss. I hope he doesn’t take it to heart, doesn’t feel he is to blame. My heart’s instinct is to jump out and stand in front of the words fired at him like bullets. He’s too much of a scientist to think his outfit caused the mighty Tigers to hit perfect grounders down the third base line. My protection would draw attention to the attack.

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The mascot runs off the field to the park bathroom and emerges with a remarkably clean face, cleaner than it’s been in days, a pale outline of orange above his ears and eyebrows. He shakes it off. There’s one more chance, he says.

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